Restaurant Reviews

Enough About Mi

The mixed grill with sticky rice and a sunny-side up fried egg at Banh Cuon Hoa #2 on Beechnut made an outstanding lunch. The ­lemongrass-­marinated beef, sweet-and-hot pork, juicy grilled chicken breast and fresh shrimp were all well marinated and char-grilled until they were extremely flavorful. But it was the strange-looking oval under the fried egg that really blew me away. It looked like a slice of baguette, but it tasted like spicy sausage. "It's a spicy ground shrimp roll wrapped with tofu skin, sliced on the diagonal and fried," the manager told me. The tofu skin looked like bread crust.

Mi quang is a bowl of fat yellow turmeric noodles in a pork-and-dried shrimp stock served with a combination of meats and shrimp. It is my favorite Vietnamese noodle dish at the moment. The yellow noodles come from Central Vietnam (Quang Nam), and I have never seen them before. The stock is lighter than pho stock, and the thick, slippery noodles are delightful.

Hu tiu mi nam vang is a noodle dish for food critics and people who can't make up their minds — it has both rice and egg noodles in a light pork broth with pork and shrimp and a couple of hard-boiled quail eggs, with a topping of crunchy Chinese cilantro stems. If you only want the rice noodles, get hu tiu nam vang, and if you only want the egg noodles, get mi nam vang. Having tried both kinds of noodles together, I prefer the straight mi.

Banh Cuon Hoa #2 opened around four months ago. It's the sister restaurant to Banh Cuon Hoa on Veterans Memorial, a restaurant that's been around for many years. The restaurants have nearly identical menus — they are owned by two different members of the same family.

With its purple and yellow accents, the restaurant's decor might be called "LSU moderne." The harsh lighting is provided by too many fluorescent fixtures. There are metal holders with plastic numbers and stands containing chopsticks and Chinese soup spoons on the blond wood tables. The floor is stark white tile. It's a noodle house — you don't come here for the ambience.

The first time I attempted to get a takeout order at Banh Cuon Hoa #2, the extremely petite waitress kept vetoing my orders. "Too much flavor," she repeated at least five times. She kept flipping the menu back to the pho page. "I don't want pho," I told her.

I kept trying to reassure her that lots of flavor was not going to be a problem. But she told me she had an unpleasant experience with some non-Asian diners who ordered a bunch of food and walked out because they found the fermented aromas overwhelming. Be forewarned: If authentically funky fermented fish sauce has "too much flavor" for you, don't eat here.

Having recently discovered the delightful Vietnamese steamed rice paper rolls called banh cuon, I set out to sample as many examples as I could find. I think Thien Thanh on Bellaire was the best banh cuon restaurant I encountered. Huynh restaurant on St. Emanuel serves a very nice bowl of banh cuon if you want to try it as part of a more varied meal. And the fast-food banh cuon franchise from Southern California, Tay Do 18 in the Hong Kong City Mall, is worth a visit too.

Given its name, you would expect Banh Cuon Hoa #2 to specialize in banh cuon. And they do have four banh cuon selections. There's a decent char-grilled pork roll and a not very interesting ground pork roll, along with a ground shrimp roll and a combo roll. Meanwhile, there are eight variations of banh uot on the menu.

Banh cuon is made by steaming rice paper sheets and rolling them up with various fillings inside. Banh uot is made with the same steamed rice paper sheets wadded up into a noodle raft that is pulled apart and eaten in pieces. Other ingredients are mixed up with the wadded rice paper sheets or served on top of them. I like the banh cuon a lot better than the banh uot.

But in truth, I like the other dishes here better than either one. The banh xeo, a crispy crepe stuffed with shrimp and eaten in lettuce leaf wrappers with herbs, is terrific. The vermicelli bowls are very good.

Try the vermicelli noodles with crispy Hanoi-style char-grilled pork. The pork is a combo of thin pork strips and flat patties that look like spicy breakfast sausage. You eat the pork and noodles wrapped in lettuce with herbs and sprouts and lots of pepper sauce.

I had high hopes for the banh mi bo kho, which I translated to "beef stew sandwich." It sounded like it was going to be a Vietnamese roast beef poor boy. Ever since I first learned about Vietnamese sandwiches, I have been looking for the banh mi stuffed with curry and banh mi stuffed with roast beef that I have heard are popular in Vietnam. But I have yet to find a version I like.

Instead of a sandwich, the banh mi bo kho was a bowl of stew with a baguette on the side. The stew was watery — it looked more like a soup. Trying to make a sandwich out of soup is not a good idea, but I was determined. I split the banh mi in half and stuffed it with beef and broth. It would have tasted passable if each hunk of meat hadn't had a chewy piece of gristle attached to it.

On a different visit, I tried ordering the banh mi cari ga, a chicken curry Vietnamese sandwich. But the waiter told me that the chef didn't make chicken curry anymore. So much for that idea.

Duck and bamboo noodles is a Vietnamese classic offering consisting of two dishes eaten together. There's a plate of sliced duck in a cabbage salad with ground peanuts and Chinese cilantro. You dip the cold duck in a ginger, garlic and chili-flavored dipping sauce. Then there's a bowl of bamboo noodle soup — chicken broth with rice noodles and slices of fresh and fermented bamboo.

The duck salad was pretty good. But the fermented bamboo was nasty-­smelling. I hate to admit it, but the bamboo soup had "too much flavor" for me.

Banh Cuon Hoa #2 is a Vietnamese restaurant for Asians. There are a lot of dishes here that you won't find on Americanized Vietnamese menus — and you'll have to decide for yourself whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh